Student Blogs & Vlogs | College Study Abroad Programs, IFSA-Butler

Save the Turtles!

I’m all for sustainability and conservation, but sentiments, or exclamations rather, such as the one above are usually not in my repertoire of verbalisms. But that has changed a little bit since I went to the Pacuare Reserve with the IFSA-Butler group for a volunteer work project. This volunteer project has been planned for a long time and I was aware of and eagerly awaiting it since Fall Semester.

The Pacuare Reserve is on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica and is essentially an island due to the rivers and canals surrounding it. Pacuare contains one of the most important beaches in the Caribbean for the leatherback sea turtle, the largest sea turtle in the world and one of the most endangered.

We left Friday morning (May 13) and got the Caribbean side of the country by early afternoon. We were dropped off near some banana plantations and then taken by boat to the Reserve via the canals. That first afternoon after eating lunch and getting settled we had a small introductory “charla” or talk concerning the turtles we would be working with during the weekend. Afterward, we did a walk along the beach with two guides in order to get familiar with the beach and various trails. While on the walk we also did triangulations of various marked turtle nests. The nests are marked during the laying process with a stick and then later triangulated with markers or posts amongst bushes and trees along the edge of the beach. This is merely a way of keeping track of the nests and monitoring laying patterns. During this tour of the beaches, we also found a baby turtle on its back next to a crab hole; it had been wounded badly by a crab, one of the many predators of baby turtles. We rescued in and set it right side up and it started making its way toward the ocean, but the guide doubted that it would survive.

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That night at dinner we all signed up for a different night shift to patrol the beach for turtles. There were three patrols in all for four hours each, although an actual patrol will often run up to five hours, and the patrols overlap somewhat. I went on the 10 pm-2 am shift, but didn’t get back till 3:30 am. We were lucky the first night and saw four turtles: two laying eggs, a “false exit,” and one leaving just after finishing a nest with another group. We also saw some hatched baby turtles make their way to the ocean.

During the egg-laying process of the turtles, the eggs are counted as they are being laid, the mother turtle is measured both in length and width in terms of the carapace or, in broader terms, shell. (Although, leatherback turtles do not actually have a shell like those of other sea turtles; it is more alike to a hard, thick skin—thus the name “leatherback.”) Also, if the mother has laid the eggs in an unsuitable place—too close to the brush lining the beach, for example—a plastic bag will be placed in the hole dug by the mother and the eggs collected and then relocated. Other measurements are also taken, such as the depth of the nest dug; tags are checked or placed on the turtle in order to track nesting activity, and the general health of the turtle is observed.

Breakfast is late in Pacuare—9 am. But considering the work done by the workers and biologists at the Reserve, this makes sense. After breakfast we went on a quick boat trip through the canals around the Reserve. In addition to the dense banana plantations, there are areas of regenerating jungle. This tour was just to see the other wildlife of the Caribbean. Once we got back we had another “charla” about the sea turtles, less in terms of biology like the talk before and more in terms of conservation. After lunch we did work along the beach, triangulating nests and clearing sticks, logs, and debris that might inhibit a baby turtle from making it to the ocean. Afterward we went through the canals again and during dinner we signed up for patrols again. I took the 10 pm-2 pm patrol again.

That second night, although not as fortunate in terms of the number of turtles that I saw, this time I got to see the whole process of the female turtle: coming up on the beach, digging the nest, laying the eggs, camouflaging the nest, and returning to the ocean. Afterward, as with the others the night before, we camouflaged or smoothed out the surface of the nest and the tracks that the mama turtle makes when she comes up on the beach and when she leaves. Unfortunately, there is still a market for turtle eggs in Costa Rica and boats from the ocean can often see mama turtle’s tracks on the beach, which signifies the presence of a nest and therefore, eggs. Camouflaging the tracks is a way of hopefully making it more difficult for the nests to be spotted.

Although I went on the night patrol and got back at 2:30 am, I decided to go do an “exhumación” at 5 am that morning as well. This is the process of digging up an old nest in order to take data on the number of eggs hatched, eaten, undeveloped, or unfertilized. Shockingly we found three live baby turtles in the nest! They were in apparently no rush to get to the ocean. These we kept from going to the ocean due to the fast approaching heat; later that night they were released. As a biology student, I found all of the “exhumación” process incredibly interesting. Hopefully I didn’t irritate the biologist we were working with too much with all of my questions.

When I got back from the “exhumación,” I was exhausted. I took a shower, went to breakfast, and then slept. There was another work project on the beach, but we had been told that if we physically did not feel up to it, we should rest instead. And that’s what I did.

Unfortunately by this time the weekend was done and it was time for us to head back to Heredia. I was tired and was looking forward to my bed back home, but loved my time there. If it were possible for me to work there as a biology intern in the future, I would love to do it. This trip definitely didn’t disappoint any of my hopes or expectations.

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